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Excerpt From "This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage" by Ann Patchett.

Excerpt From "This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage" by Ann Patchett.

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Published by OnPointRadio
From THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE by Ann Patchett Copyright © 2013 by Ann Patchett. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
From THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE by Ann Patchett Copyright © 2013 by Ann Patchett. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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11/11/2013

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 Nonfiction, an Introduction
The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It
isn’t
 their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from. What I was looking for in a job was simple enough: something that would allow me to  pay the bills and still leave me time to write. At first I thought the key would be to put the burden on my back rather than my brain, and so I worked as a restaurant cook and, later, as a waitress. And I was right, there was plenty of room in my head for stories, but because I fell asleep the minute I stopped moving, very few of those stories were ever written down. Once I realized that
 physical labor wasn’t the ans
wer, I switched to teaching
 — 
the universally suggested career for all M.F.A. graduates
 —and while I wasn’t so
tired, days spent attending to the creativity of others often left me uninterested in any sort of creativity of my own. Food service and teaching were the only two paying jobs I thought I was qualified for,
and once I’d discovered that neither 
 of them met my requirements, I was at a loss. Could I follow the example of Wallace Stevens and sell insurance? All I knew for certain was that I had to figure out how to both eat and write. The answer, at least the first spark of it, came in the form of a 250-word book review of
Amy Tan’s novel
The Joy Luck Club.
I had published several short stories in
Seventeen
magazine, and had asked my editor, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
 — 
 both of us twenty-five at the time
 — 
if I could have a nonfiction assignment as well. The economics were easy enough to figure:
Seventeen
ran one short story a month, twelve stories a year, and if I was doing my absolute best I could never hope for more than one or two of those spots. A writer of nonfiction, on the other hand, could publish an article in every issue, sometimes multiple articles in a single issue. I had finally identified a job that I more or less knew how to do that would be neither mentally nor physically exhausting.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t aggravating at times. I was asked
 to rewrite that book review half a dozen times, and each time I was told I had to consider yet another aspect of the novel. My word count was not increased to match these new points of interest, and more words in meant that, somewhere, other words had to come out. So I trimmed and tucked, found a single wo
rd to express five words’ worth
of feeling. I explored the realm of mother-daughter relationships on the head of a pin. Once my book review was accepted, I started pitching ideas for articles to Adrian, who took the better ones to her boss, Robbie Myers. Unlike in my fiction, where I prided myself on making things up, I found these articles wanted personal experience. For every ten story ideas I came up with
 —“Growing Up with Horses,” or “When Your Best Friend’s a Guy,” or “How to Decorate Your Locker”— 
I would be given the green light to write one of them (without a contract or kill fee), and for every ten I was allowed to write, maybe one would actually make its way into the magazine. The one that
was
accepted would then be rewritten ten times as I received round after round of notes, not only from Adrian and Robbie,  but from various editors in other departments and all their interns, who were honing their own editorial skills.
 I never felt that way when I was fifteen
, read the note most regularly penciled in the margins. And while I wanted to say,
 Did
you
 grow up in Tennessee? Did
you
 go to a Catholic
 
 girls’ school? Did
you
 stay home with your parents on the weekends
 
and never go on a
 
 single date?
, I refrained. If they wanted to see themselves reflected in my piece, I would put them there. I would find a way to wedge in every single one of them and stay within the confines of my word count.
Seventeen
magazine, where I never had an office and rarely visited, was the site of my apprenticeship; I learned how to write an essay there, just as I had learned how to write fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and the Iowa Writers
’ Workshop. Whereas fiction was singularly
mine
 — 
I would never have changed a short story to reflect
an editor’s experience— 
nonfiction was collectively ours. I readjusted the slant of an article to satisfy the vision of various editors, or spiced up the action to meet the attention span of the readers. I saw my best paragraphs cut after everything was finished and agreed upon because the art department wanted more space for their illustration. I sliced a piece in half because an ad was suddenly dropped, and fewer advertising dollars meant fewer editorial pages. I was learning how to work for a magazine by shaping my writing, yes, but I was also shaping myself: it was my aim to be flexible and fast, the go-to girl. Years later, a magazine editor called to say that they were closing the issue the next day and their lead article, a long piece about procrastination, had fallen through at the last minute. Could I write something, anything, by tomorrow? Of course I could. This was the person I had trained myself to be. Magazine work was an uncertain business
 — 
assignments were killed on a whim, checks were late, and there was always someone who owed me expenses
 — 
 but I never lost sight of how much easier it was than busing tables or grading papers. The years spent in the freelance trenches eventually paid off; I would go on to have some remarkable
assignments. I’ve toured t
he great opera houses of Italy, gone on a mock honeymoon in Hawaii, driven an RV across the American West, all on someo
ne else’s dime. Whenever people ask
how they can get those same kinds of assignments, I recommend what worked for me: eight years writing freelance articles for
Seventeen.
 In my mind, fiction and nonfiction stayed so far away from each other that for years I would have maintained they had no more a relationship than fiction and waitressing. Writing a
novel, even when it’s
going smoothly, is hard for me, and writing an article, even a challenging one, is easy. I believe nonfiction is easy for me precisely
because
 fiction is hard; I would always rather knock off an essay than face down the next chapter of my novel. But
I’ve come to realize
that while all those years of writing fiction had improved my craft as a writer across the board, all those years of writing articles, and especially the early years at
Seventeen
, had made me a workhorse, and that, in turn, was a skill I brought back to my novels.
Seventeen
also went a long way to beat any ego out of me. Somewhere along the line I learned to experience only the smallest, most private stabbing sensation when I watched my best sentences cut from an article  because they did not advance the story. Ultimately, this skill came to benefit my fiction as well. The conversations I had had so often with magazine editors were now internalized. I could read  both parts of the script.
 Did I think 
 
that was a beautiful scene I had written?
Yes, I did.
 Did it  further the
 
cause of the novel?
 No, not really.
Could I then delete it?
It was already gone. I wrote for
Seventeen
until I was thirty; by then I had exhausted everything I remembered about growing up. I then moved on to fashion magazines, the way a girl who has cut her teeth reading
Seventeen
 goes on to read
 Harper’s
 Bazaar 
. I got new assignments not by sending out clippings and a résumé, but by doggedly following editors and friends as they advanced through their careers. Someone I knew at
Seventeen
went to
 Elle
, which meant I could now write for
 Elle
. My friend Lucy wrote a piece for
Vogue
, which meant I now had a contact at
Vogue
. When that
 
editor got a job at
GQ
, I added
GQ
to my list of employers. In this way my career expanded exponentially. A friend of mine from college went to work for
 Mercedes-Benz 
 
 Magazine
(who knew such a thing existed?), and so I wrote articles that appealed to the owners of luxury cars. Later, my friend Erica Goldberg Schultz became the editor of
 Bridal Guide
and made me a contributing editor, which meant I paid my bills by writing about the challenges of finding cake-toppers that resembled the actual bride and groom. As trivial as this work was, I had no intention of setting my sights any higher; I wanted to finish my article on ballroom dancing or boutique farming and get back to my novel. Writing fiction, after all, was what I did.
In truth, I wasn’t the one who decided to better myself; one of my
 editors did it for me. When Ilena Silverman, my editor at
GQ
, got a job at the
 New York Times Magazine
, she took me with her, along with another writer she favored, my friend Adrian LeBlanc, who had long ago left
Seventeen
for a reporting career. Though I felt intimidated and unqualified to write for the
Times
, I realized magazine writing had given me yet another skill (also essential to fiction): the ability to fake authority. The first assignment I was given was a small
 piece on “nutraceuticals.”
Did I know what they were? No, I did not. Did I mention that to Ilena Silverman? No again. I will never forget calling an executive at Monsanto to discuss the high-beta-carotene cooking oil
they were developing. “This is Ann Patchett from the
 New
 
York Times
,” I said to the assistant. I
had never had a call put through so quickly in my life. For the most part, I loved my editors and the brief, intense intimacies that could come from working together on a piece. I loved Ilena Silverman so much I would have written anything she asked me to, just for the chance to spend hours talking with her on the phone. Had we actually been friends who spent tim
e together, I’m sure I wouldn’t
have written for her, as her editorial style drove me mad. She never seemed to know quite what she wanted where I was concerned, but
she felt sure she’d know it when she sa
w it. That meant I was asked to rewrite  pieces from every conceivable angle so that she could say,
 No,
 
that wasn’t what I had in mind.
It was like having someone ask you to move the living room furniture over and over again:
 Let’s
 see that sofa
 
under the window. No, no, I don’t like it under the window; let’s see
 
what it looks like next to the door.
Still, thanks to her intelligence and good company, I remember the pieces we worked on together with great fondness. She was trying to drag me to the smarter, better  places she could see inside her own mind. While I was still writing for the
Times
, I started on the best freelance job of my career: writing for Bill Sertl and Ruth Reichl at
Gourmet 
. If the
 New York Times Magazine
challenged my thinking,
Gourmet
expanded my art. What Ruth and Bill wanted to see was how much warmth and exuberance could be packed into a single piece. Working for them was like having
the world’s
 most supportive parents. They were eager to get behind everything I wanted to do. When I was working on
 Bel Canto
and wanted to learn more about opera, they packed me off to Italy. When I was writing
State of 
 
Wonder
and wanted to take a boat up the Amazon in Brazil, Bill found me a boat, though not one in Brazil
. “It’s in Peru,” he said, “but
let me tell you, the
 jungle’s the jungle.” I ate the fo
od, made notes on hotel rooms, and participated in available tourist activities, all the while soaking up the atmosphere for my next novel. Once I called Bill after what had been months of overlapping houseguests and told him I wanted to check into a fancy hotel by myself for a week and never
leave the property. “Brilliant!” he said. “I love it.”
And so I took up residence at the Hotel Bel-Air. The res
ulting piece, “Do Not Disturb,”
was one
that no other magazine would have assigned, and it’s proba
 bly the best piece of travel writing
I’ve
ever done. Those were the salad days of freelance writing. I can only hope I gave back to
Gourmet
half of all it gave to me.

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